The Art of Rejection (or the rejection of art)

"What we can't express, runs our lives." anonymous

September 5, 2002

Today I had an illustration job killed. This is not unheard of in my business, in fact it happens to everyone from time to time. Usually it is due to an article being pulled, or a change in direction for a magazine issue or design job. On this occasion it was because one of the editors did not like my style at all and immediately told the art director to hire someone else. This comes from a very prestigious client in the business, one that all illustrators long to work for. The art director phoned me and with sincere regret and numerous apologies related the news, she also took responsibility for some of the miscommunication that had ensued between her and the editor. 

As I hung up the receiver, I slumped into a chair, and felt a familiar pain rise up in my solar plexus. Immediately several questions enter my head. What could I have done? Is my work that bad? Maybe I should have taken a different approach with the story? Was it too simple? I mention this in an attempt to work through the pit that I have in the bottom of my stomach. I am attempting to do what the Buddhists prescribe, "sit with the pain". Hold it up, look at it closely from all sides. Investigate the source.

I must admit, I do not like this feeling. When I don't like something I immediately try to banish it from my body/life. What I might have done in the past (and still would like to do today) is to say to myself, "I am fine, focus on something else, get over it." I would carry on through my day with this nagging empty feel in my belly, and occasional pangs of incompetence which would go unacknowledged. Another thing I like to do is to find someone else to help justify my position, find a friend to tell me "They're crazy, don't listen to them", or "Yeah, they're terrible clients to work for, I've heard it from many people." Somehow the benefits of these things are short lived and I am still left with the pain, like a bulky piece of furniture in the corner of a room that someone has tried to camouflage with an old sheet. If I don't look at it maybe it won't bother me.

In my reading of Buddhist literature I keep coming across the concept of "sitting" with an uncomfortable feeling. My North American self finds this suggestion hard to grasp. But isn't the goal to feel good? How can I embrace something when it is causing me to feel horrible? In the moment I want to find an easier answer, one that I can do quickly and with little effort. But after having the same feeling crop up again and again I am willing to try a new approach. What is it I am meant to learn here?

When you start to look at something close up, some feelings pop up that you many not know exist. In this situation I was forced to go deeper into my own fears about my ability. I started to investigate the idea that I had experienced this many times in my life in similar situations. I noticed it was bringing me back to a moment in my past where I had been turned down for a group activity and was left feeling useless and untalented. In that moment I was told to "buck up", get over it, don't let the world know you are disappointed, it shows weakness. 

Unknowingly this editor had hooked something that was buried pretty deep, something I had never really dealt with when it happened. I am working on allowing myself to experience these feelings as they arise. I think the goal is to be able to get to a place where we can look objectively, and where we can be gentle with ourselves. I think I am meant to learn that IT IS OK FOR ME TO FEEL DISAPPOINTED BY THIS. Disappointment is a natural human reaction which I have been fighting. So often I learned that if I allow myself to feel disappointment then somehow I have failed. In fact the opposite is true, I can allow myself to feel that disappointment even while seeing that the editors decision had nothing to do with my ability. I really do know that deep down. Isn't this what we would do with a little child? Hug them, let them have a good cry, and then tell them "you are indeed talented".

Ha. I am confirming something in writing this. The benefit of sitting with a bad feeling is much simpler than I thought. I thought that if I sat with it long enough it would go away. The real truth is that if I let it exist than I EXPRESS it instead of shoving in down into the depths of my psyche. Take that sheet off that bureau; you're not fooling anyone.

Let me say that I am still working on this one. Writing it down really does help to clarify some things, I actually didn't want to deal with this in an article (which is pretty telling in itself). In relating the difficult stuff I worry about focusing too much on the negative. But that's really what this lesson (and the writing process) is all about, embracing all of my experiences. Dealing with rejection is something that we all struggle with, even when we are doing what we love. ESPECIALLY when we are doing what we love.  On some days it is perfectly acceptable to say, "Ugh, this kinda sucks."

Keri Smith is a free-lance illustrator and native of Toronto.  A graduate of  O.C.A. she has a wide following of clients in North America and Japan.  She currently resides in a “magic” cottage in Flesherton, painting, illustrating, creating, writing, and living out loud.  Her first children's books, entitled Story in a Box have just been published by Chronicle Books.